Is Ricky Gervais the new Woody Allen... or a witless bore?
Ricky Gervais is in danger of turning into a bad parody of his greatest creation.
Long, long ago, when he was the funniest thing on the planet, John Cleese observed that a comic persona is whatever that comedian would have been had he not become a comedian. This brilliantly perceptive remark Mr Cleese then devoted himself to proving, by mutating into the pompous, embittered didact he once so gloriously played for laughs.
It is too soon to tell whether Ricky Gervais will follow the same path. One sincerely hopes not, because Gervais, as he semi-ironically likes to remind us, is a genius. However, there are signs that he is taking baby steps along Cleese Cul de Sac from the Twitter bushfire he sparked by using the word “mong” and posting snaps of himself pulling expressions of exaggerated mental retardation.
“Mong” is short for “mongoloid”, which was jettisoned as a term for Down’s syndrome decades ago, at about the time Mr Cleese ceased to amuse. Unlike such kin in the clan of nasty nomenclature as “yid”, “queer” and “Paki”, it has never been reclaimed by its victims. To many who live with Down’s, though not all, “mong” remains as unpleasant an abbreviation as “spaz”.
Although light years away from Frankie Boyle’s repugnance in targeting Katie Price’s severely disabled young son, Gervais is disingenuous in tweeting that “mong” is merely a synonym for “idiot”. The word appears in the Extras episode in which his character, Andy Millman, inadvertently insults a Down’s syndrome boy in a restaurant.
If life finds itself imitating art there, it is also doing a useful impression via his appreciation for his Twitter followers’ support in this row. “And thank you,” he tweeted this week. “I realised today what f------ amazingly smart, funny and honest fans I have.” This hint of siege mentality brings to mind Millman, after being humiliated by David Bowie’s impromptu nightclub ditty about him being a little fat man with a snub-nosed face, fleeing to the pub to seek solace from moronic fans of When the Whistle Blows, his moronically archaic sitcom within a sitcom. And yes, I know that “moron” was once a technical term, too. But it would be beneath Gervais’s dignity and grasp of nuance to compare its usage to “mong”.
He has since announced the most shocking Twitter resignation since Stephen Fry’s with “I am going to stop these tweets because I don’t see the point. Please follow my blog …” Is he having a laugh? Perhaps he is, and will, like Mr Fry, soon return. But sensing a wounded soul, you wonder how far he is from giving the mandatory showbiz exile interview to a US title about Tall Poppy Syndrome. Well, it’s the British disease, isn’t it? They only build you up to knock you down.
In fact, they don’t. Ricky Gervais built himself up with The Office, Extras, the podcasts and stand-up tours, several decent movies, and his sublime pastiching of the very celebrity queeniness to which he now seems to be succumbing. If he is knocked down, that will be his doing, too.
Being a genius, Gervais cannot deploy the Carol Thatcher defence, when she referred to a black tennis player as a golliwog, of not comprehending that words spoken with no intent to wound can still wound those who hear them. He must appreciate that not setting out to offend people does not equate to people being hysterical in taking offence. Political correctness, which he wearyingly cites as the enemy here, has its imbecilities. But its nobler side is demanding the common courtesy to take care to avoid distressing the vulnerable. Unwittingness is no more relevant than when accidentally stepping on someone’s toe. Any normal person apologises and tries not to do it again.
Genius is a fragile commodity that ebbs and flows. Once Gervais was regarded as a useless dolt. Playing televised poker one night in Cardiff as a virtual unknown, he was so unpleasant that the above-mentioned Fry addressed him by the crudest monosyllable in the language. “I may be a ----,” went his Wildean riposte, “but at least I’m not gay.”
Art and life, life and art… From the ashes of that witless boor rose David Brent, and (apart from the mediocre Simpsons episode he wrote and voiced and a sycophantic interview with his hero Larry David, in whose Curb Your Enthusiasm he is about to play a cameo) he has barely made a false step since.
I met him once, very briefly, in a bar (within seven seconds he had nicknamed me Uncle Fester) and liked him very much. I admire him and his work enormously, and hope he fulfils his potential by becoming his generation’s closest answer to Woody Allen. But the danger is clear, if he cannot separate himself from the playground bully creation who taunts his friends Robin Ince and Karl Pilkington, beats up dwarves, and blithely abandons wheelchair-bound women on the stairs during a fire drill.
The ghost of comedic Christmas yet to come is available for his inspection. It will no doubt flit ghoulishly across the screen tonight in one of The X Factor’s 93 advert breaks, when an AA commercial will confirm that nowhere in Britain today – not in the health and safety executive, not in the Meteorological Office, not even in the parking permits department of a Midlands borough council – exists anyone unfunnier than the creator of Fawlty Towers.
So beware, Ricky Gervais. Beware the way of Cleese, and keep the comic persona and the real thing well apart.
Independent News Service